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Aspects of Guyana’s Foreign Policy During 1966 - 1970
by Odeen Ishmael PhD


The pattern of the policy

When Guyana became an independent nation on 26 May 1966, it was faced with the situation of its western neighbor Venezuela refusing to recognize western Essequibo as part of the Guyanese state. And by that time, too, a well-armed group of Venezuelan soldiers along with Venezuelan civilians, unknowing to the Guyana Government, had already begun encroaching on the Guyana half of the six-square-miles Ankoko Island at the confluence of the boundary rivers, Cuyuni and Wenamu. There was also the continuing claim by Suriname of the entire border Corentyne River in addition to the New River triangle, a forested and almost uninhabited area of 6,000 square miles on the south eastern corner of Guyana.

For the entire period from 1966 to 1970, Guyana’s foreign policy was shaped to counter the Venezuelan claim to Guyana’s territory. The pattern of change evolved further after Venezuela in July 1968 extended its claim off the Essequibo coastline to a nine-mile belt of ocean beyond Guyana’s tree-mile territorial sea limit.
However, this foreign policy, in addition to focusing on the territorial claims by Venezuela and Suriname also emphasized, in an inter-related way, the development of closer relations with Brazil, support for the African liberation movements, Caribbean integration, close coordination with the Commonwealth, the active utilization of the United Nations, and the pursuit of non-alignment.

As a whole, foreign policy was managed by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, who was also Minister of External Affairs, and Shridath Ramphal, the Attorney General and Minister of State.

In the same period, the PNC-UF coalition (which lasted until December 1968) was strongly pro-western and depended heavily on American aid. This was understandable considering that the American government worked very closely with both the PNC and the UF to destabilize and eventually remove the pre-independence PPP government in December 1964.

Even after the elections of 1968, which Burnham rigged to retain power with the full knowledge and support of the USA, Burnham’s foreign policy remained practically unchanged. The reason was most likely because of the continuation of the Venezuelan claim to western Essequibo and Burnham did not want to risk losing the support of the USA, and also Brazil, its large powerful neighbor to the south. At the same time, he did he want these two countries to remain neutral on the issue.

PPP push for socialist policies
The socialist-oriented PPP, now in opposition, tried to pressure the PNC section of the coalition to apply some socialist policies in the administration of the country. Among its demands was the nationalization of agriculture, banks, insurance companies and other foreign companies – all regarded as key sectors of the economy. No doubt, the PPP still had some hopes that the PNC, which claimed it was a socialist party, would bend in that direction particularly after Guyana became an independent state. However, the PNC leader and Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, rejected the PPP demands and continued the application of capitalist economic policies.

Two significant actions were heavily criticized by the PPP. One was the special relationship of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) with Great Britain. In addition to the GDF receiving equipment and training from Great Britain, its first commander was a British officer. The PPP felt there were qualified Guyanese to fill that post.
The second action referred to special permission granted for a 17-year period to the US to use the international airport (then known as Atkinson Field) and for rights of fly-over of the Guyana’s airspace by the United States military. This permission was given by the Burnham government through a secret agreement signed at the time of independence when the airport, used as an American air base, was officially retuned to the Guyana government.

Meanwhile, the PPP moved to strengthen its links with the international socialist movements, and took militant positions on international issues which coincided closely with those of Cuba. In January 1966, the Party participated in the Tri-Continental Conference in Havana and was elected to the committee to organize assistance for the national liberation movements of Africa, Asia and Latin America. A year later, at the conference of the Latin American Solidarity Organization, also in Havana, the PPP was elected to the organizing committee. Finally in 1969, the Party declared itself as Marxist-Leninist and formally entered the international communist movement.

Burnham’s pro-American position
In 1966, the PNC-UF coalition government introduced a seven-year development plan which was totally pro-western in orientation. It was aimed at promoting industrial development, encouraging private sector growth, attracting investments, and expanding the export market. Dr. Wilfred David, then an adviser in the Ministry of Economic Development in an article in the London Financial Times of 30 October 1969 said that the development plan was private sector friendly and that the philosophy behind it was “cooperation and not of confiscation.”

Prime Minister Burnham also distanced himself from his previous links to socialist beliefs. Actually, he had already done that when he allied himself with the UF and the United States in 1962-1964 to help destabilize the PPP Government. In a series of speeches after May 1966, he re-affirmed his firm opposition to the socialist ideology and maintained positions on international issues similar to those asserted by the United States.

It was therefore, not surprising, that the PNC-UF government downplayed relations with the socialist countries. Trade with Cuba, initiated by the PPP administration, was drastically slashed despite the obvious economic benefits it was bringing to Guyana. Rice exports to Cuba were reduced from G$5.9 million in 1964 to G$1.2 million in 1965. One year later, the Cuban commercial mission in Georgetown was closed and trade with Cuba came to an end. Similarly, trade with communist Eastern Europe and China declined sharply from G$5.6 million, or 1.6 percent of the total commerce of 1965, to G$1.6 million, or 0.3 percent, in 1970.

Clearly, up to 1970, Guyana’s pro-western foreign policy was similar to that of countries of the English-speaking Caribbean. But in reality, Guyana’s relations with the US were probably closer than the other Caribbean countries. This was reflected in the aid the US gave to Guyana. For instance, in 1969 Guyana received about 50 percent of the aid of USAID for the entire Caribbean region, and 93.4 percent of the total provided to the English-speaking Caribbean. As a matter of fact, in 1969, 76 percent of the Development Loan Fund of USAID was disbursed to only eight nations: Chile, Colombia, India, Pakistan, Turkey, South Korea and Guyana. Further to this, other western countries, such as Great Britain, Canada, West Germany, Japan and Switzerland provided aid towards Guyana’s economic development.

Guyana-Brazil friendship
In the light of the Venezuelan claim, the post-independence period was marked by a diplomatic offensive by Guyana to win solidarity internationally. It received ready support from the English-speaking Caribbean countries and from the Commonwealth. Support and solidarity also came from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). But the Guyana Government did little to lobby support from Latin American governments, even though they never showed any leanings towards the Venezuelan position. The reason for this lack of outreach to Latin America on the part of Guyana was possibly an inherent belief that the Latin American would show solidarity to Venezuela and also because of Guyanese (and also the English-speaking Caribbean) lack of knowledge of the history, culture and other aspects of the way of life of Latin Americans.

However, there was intensive diplomatic activity with Brazil, friendship with which, in the view of Guyana, could positively counter-balance the Venezuelan threat. In this period, Brazil since 1964 was ruled by an anti-communist military dictatorship which, no doubt, regarded the PNC-UF coalition in Guyana as a welcome change to Jagan’s PPP government. The PPP itself was no friend of the Brazilian dictatorship and openly described it as fascist and also as a bastion of US imperialism in Latin America. The Venezuelan government had also broken off diplomatic relations with Brazil as a result of the coup d’etat in 1964 which overthrew President João Goulart.

Burnham quickly realized the importance of cultivating good relations with Brazil which had initially remained neutral over the Venezuelan claim. In principle, Brazil maintained a consistent policy in favor of the sanctity of established international borders through arbitration agreements and opposed any change of borders in the South American continent. It also disagreed with any unilateral renunciation of international arbitrations which delineated borders between countries since a great part of its own borders was defined by such agreements.

In the case of Guyana’s border with Venezuela, it was clear that should Venezuela take control of Guyana’s western Essequibo region, it would result in a substantial change in territorial ownership and most likely swing the strategic equation in South America in favor of Venezuela

In July 1968, immediately after Venezuelan President Raul Leone decreed “ownership” of a nine-mile strip of ocean off Guyana’s three-mile territorial sea limits, the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, José de Magalhaes Pinto, stated that his government believed strongly, as it always did, in the sanctity of treaties and the fruitful fulfillment of international agreements. This statement was favorable to Guyana and was regarded as support to its position in the controversy with Venezuela. It also helped to promote closer bilateral relations, and on 26-30 August 1968 Minister Ramphal and the Deputy Prime Minister Ptolemy Reid visited Brazil for discussions with leaders of the Brazilian government. As a result, a cultural agreement was signed and an agreement was reached for the opening of a Brazilian embassy in Georgetown. In November 1968, Brigadier General José Horacio de Cunha Garcia eventually took up his post as the first Brazilian ambassador to Guyana.

Meanwhile, the Burnham administration continued to downplay relations with socialist Cuba. Immediately after the “Leone decree”, the Cuban government, hoping to improve relations with the Guyana Government, offered military aid to Guyana to counter any aggressive designs from Venezuela. This was immediately refused since it would have hampered relations with Brazil which was vehemently anti-Cuban. Further, there was an indication that the acceptance of Cuban military aid would encourage Brazil to support the Venezuelan claim to western Essequibo.

It was obvious, too, that Brazil saw advantages in pursuing closer relations with Guyana. Brazil was interested in the port of Georgetown to gain access to the Caribbean and was thinking of construction of a highway to link its Roraima state with Georgetown. With this in mind, the Brazilian Foreign Minister in August 1969 invited Ramphal to Brasilia where they signed technical cooperation and commercial agreements. The two Ministers also had preliminary discussions on a proposal for Brazil to obtain eventual free port facilities in Georgetown on the completion of the envisaged highway.

In January 1969 when some Guyanese ranchers launched an armed uprising against the Guyana government – an uprising encouraged by Venezuela – Brazil in a precautionary move, mobilized its troops in the border region. Many of the local Amerindians who supported the rebellion fled to Brazil when the uprising collapsed; some of them were held by the Brazilian army and handed over to the Guyanese security authorities across the border.

This might have been the genesis of military cooperation between the two countries which moved forward in October 1969 when two senior officers of he Guyana Defence Force (GDF), including its commander Brigadier David Granger, went to Brazil in October 1969 for training in combat operations. Then in April 1970, a Centre of Brazilian Studies was inaugurated in Georgetown.

In the Caribbean region, there was understanding for the closeness of Guyana-Brazil relations. In an editorial on 13 August 1969, the daily Barbados Advocate felt that Guyana’s relations with “the colossus of the South America” would be of an incalculable value if Venezuela or Suriname tried to use their troops “to solve their territorial controversies with this country.”

Guyana-Suriname relations
With regard to relations with Suriname, Guyana stoutly rejected its eastern neighbor’s claim to the New River triangle. This claim was also not recognized by the Brazilian government, which in the 1930s together with Great Britain and Holland – the colonial powers – had formally agreed on the triangulation boundary point of the three countries.

Suriname apparently was determined to physically enforce its claim and its government sent a team of surveyors into the area to carry out mapping exercises. However, in December 1967 Guyanese police arrested them and later sent them back across the Corentyne River to Surinamese territory. This action raised a strong protest from the Minister-President of Suriname, Johan Pengel who insisted that the New River triangle was Suriname’s territory. This assertion was firmly rejected by the Guyana Government.

Nevertheless, Suriname continued to clandestinely send its military personnel into the territory. On 19 August 1969, the Guyana Defence Force discovered a Surinamese military camp in the area and arrested a group of Surinamese soldiers and seized a quantity of arms and ammunition and other military equipment. The Guyana Government declared that the presence of a permanent camp with armed Surinamese military on Guyanese territory indicated that such action had hostile intentions. As was expected, this incident soured relations between the two neighbors.

Two months later, Suriname held national elections and Pengel’s party was defeated. A new coalition government led by Minister-President Jules Sedney displayed a more flexible attitude and was willing to improve relations with Guyana. As a result, Dr. Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, agreed to mediate an understanding, and both Sedney and Burnham met with him at Chaguaramas on 9-10 April 1970. This led to a visit by Sedney to Georgetown on 24-27 June 1970 and one by Burnham to Paramaribo three months later on 4-8 September. As a result of their discussions, Burnham and Sedney agreed that the frontier zone would immediately be demilitarized; that both countries should pursue a policy of economic and cultural cooperation; and that all disputes between the two countries should be settled peacefully.

However, sovereignty over the Corentyne River remained a sore point. Despite the non-existence of any formal agreement, Suriname continued to exercise ownership of the entire river and disagreed that the international boundary should follow the thalweg, or deepest channel. The Suriname authorities, as they had done in the past, also continued to issue licenses to Guyanese vessels plying the river and, from time to time, Guyanese fishermen using unlicensed boats were arrested and arraigned before the courts in Suriname. The Guyana Government raised lukewarm objections to such actions which served to give recognition to the de facto control by Suriname of the entire border river.

Support for African liberation movements
But Guyana’s international relations were also directed at other significant areas of interest. The PPP pre-independence administration was very vocal in championing the cause of the Third World liberation movements and had always declared its opposition to the racist system in the countries of southern Africa – Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Namibia and South Africa. In particular, it stood in solidarity with the African National Congress (ANC) in the struggle against the abhorrent apartheid system in South Africa. To an extent this policy was continued by the PNC-UF coalition and, from 1969, by the PNC government. But in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Burnham at first was hesitant in rendering total support for the ANC, and often equated it with the rival Pan-African Congress, which had relatively little support among the majority non-White South Africans. This position was similar to that of the US and other western powers which felt that that the ANC was communist oriented because of the support it drew from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.

Guyana, during 1966-1970, also showed deep interest in anti-colonial movements in other parts of Africa, especially Angola and Mozambique, and spoke out forcefully in support of these movements at various international forums. However, in the case of Angola, the Guyana Government stubbornly refused to support the popular pro-Soviet Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA); instead it sided with the pro-western National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) which had little support from the Angolans.

Interestingly, too, Guyana challenged other countries to provide financial support for the liberation movements fighting against racism in southern Africa, and led by example in donating US$50,000 annually towards this cause. This act from a poor country far removed from the African continent was politically effective and it won for Guyana reciprocal support and solidarity from governments and liberation movements throughout the African continent. This “African” policy was very popular among the Afro-Guyanese, the main political supporters of Burnham’s PNC, but it was also supported by the PPP which historically championed this cause. This policy proved to be of enormous benefit in the diplomatic confrontation with Venezuela since Guyana could always count on diplomatic support from the African countries.

In addition, it catapulted Guyana into the position as a champion in the western hemisphere for the developing countries of Africa and Asia. And when in May 1967 the UN General Assembly created the UN Council for South West Africa (later Namibia), Guyana was elected unanimously for one of the eleven members. The Guyana Mission to the UN was very active in the work of this Council and also was involved in active discussions with the African Group in many political and economic matters raised at various forums of the United Nations.

Making full use of international bodies
Guyana’s participation in the United Nations, where it was also an active member of the Latin American and Caribbean Group, was pivotal in the expression of its foreign policy. Guyana saw the organization as a defensive mechanism forming part of the country’s “security system”. Ramphal, from 1967, made full use of the UN, not only to highlight the unjust Venezuelan claim, but also as a form of preventive mechanism of collective security to discourage any prospective military attack on Guyana. Addressing the General Assembly in October 1967, Ramphal, referring to Venezuela’s aggressive designs, argued that the developing states should rid themselves of the burden of having armaments to defend their right to survive as sovereign states, and that it was the role of the UN to firmly support their independence and the territorial integrity.

Guyana suggested a similar principle for the Commonwealth to which it also turned for support to counter the Venezuelan threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Just a few days after the Rupununi rebellion was crushed, Burnham attended the Commonwealth summit in London on 7-15 January 1969. There he proposed that the organization should develop an effective method to defend the territorial integrity of its new members which did not possess the capacity to defend themselves. This view won support from the other leaders and many of the leaders agreed with Burnham that the Commonwealth should initiate urgently an international effort to assure the territorial integrity of all the small developing countries. They felt this was necessary because threats to their territorial integrity and sovereignty placed serious pressures on their resources and energies which should be applied to their economic development. The final communiqué of the summit also expressed concern over the difficulties that Guyana was experiencing in relation to the claim of Venezuela on more than half of its territory.

Interestingly, the Guyana Government’s quick action in suppressing the Rupununi uprising solidified its hard-line opposition to the right of secession and the disintegration of states. Clearly, the threat to Guyana’s territorial integrity, as a result of the claims by Venezuela and Suriname, was the overlying reason. Significantly, the issue of secession arose in March 1969 – just two months after the Rupununi revolt – when the British military intervened in Anguilla after that tiny island unilaterally seceded from its federation with St. Kitts and Nevis. While the governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica vehemently opposed the military intervention, Guyana supported the British action in suppressing the island’s secessionist movement.

Caribbean integration
Regional integration formed an important plank in Guyana’s foreign policy since it was a main instrument to hold back Venezuela and Suriname. In this respect, the commitment to Caribbean unity was the main element of Guyanese foreign policy. Addressing Guyanese on the occasion of the first anniversary of Guyana’s independence on 26 May 1967, Burnham emphasized that while the maintenance of the territorial integrity and the defense of the country’s borders remained most important, it was also very necessary to build Caribbean unity and regional integration.

Actually, Guyana had already moved to achieve the objective of Caribbean unity and integration since two years before. During 1965, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados had initiated discussions to establish a regional organization aimed at uniting their economies and giving them a joint presence in the international arena. These discussions resulted in the signing of the Dickenson Bay Agreement in Antigua on 15 December 1965 establishing the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA).

Following a supplementary agreement signed by the representative of the three countries in March 1968, Trinidad and Tobago joined the Association in May 1968. By August 1968 Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica and Montserrat all became members. Belize joined the Association in 1971.

While, CARIFTA had mainly economic objectives, it evolved rapidly into a unifying regional body which also examined regional and international political issues of importance to the countries of the English-speaking Caribbean. Soon the body was speaking with a united voice on matters of crucial importance to the region, and these included statements of support for Guyana in the face of the aggressive territorial claim by Venezuela. Guyana made full use of this new regional forum to regularly inform its Caribbean partners on developments regarding this issue.

The policy of non-alignment
Meanwhile, in the face of strong criticism from the PPP regarding the subservience of the coalition to US interests, Burnham stated that his government was practicing active “neutralism”. On 22 July 1966, in an address to the Washington’s Women Press Club at the Statler Hotel in Washington DC, Burnham declared: “It is my Government’s determination that Guyana will never become the pawn of neither East nor West.” He added: “It must be understood, however, that our support of the Western bloc or any of its members in any stand that they may take on the international scene is not automatic. On every international issue we shall exercise our own judgement on the basis of facts at our disposal, having regard always to our national interests and the cause of world peace.”

Despite this stance of “neutralism”, except for Yugoslavia in November 1968, it refused to establish diplomatic relations with any communist country before 1970. Yugoslavia, under Josef Broz Tito, was widely regarded as independent of the Soviet bloc and was also a leader of the growing Non-Aligned Movement which Guyana eventually joined.

Actually, Guyana began to actively pursue the policy of non-alignment. Rationalizing this policy in June 1967, Ramphal, in a lecture at the Carnegie Seminar on Diplomacy at the Institute of the International Affairs, University of the West Indies, declared: “This is why the new nations – the developing nations, the poorer nation, the smaller nations – have for the greater part found a natural affinity with the policy of non-alignment and have found it possible, within its philosophy, to create a climate of international opinion which recognizes their right to retain freedom of action and to exercise an independent judgement on the great issues of world affairs.”

Despite, such pronouncements, Guyana withheld recognition of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Vietnam and the regime of Sihanouk in Cambodia, questions very much debated in the Non-Aligned Movement. In general, the Guyana government refused to be critical of US military and political polices in the Vietnam conflict. And although it refused to give support to the Asian liberation movements, it did express active support for the some African liberation organizations. As stated above, it gave support to the pro-western FNLA, instead of the popular MPLA which had the support of the great majority of Angolans, and also the NAM, in the struggle against Portuguese colonialization.

With regard to the recognition of the government of the People's Republic of China and its admission to the United Nations, it voted against the General Assembly resolutions in 1967 and 1968, and abstained in 1969 and 1970. It also maintained recognition for Taiwan which, through an agreement signed August 1970, began to render technical assistance for Guyana’s rice industry. And when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, it took a strong anti-Soviet position, contradicting it stance on intervention of just three years before when it had firmly supported the US invasion of the Dominican Republic.

Even though these contradictions existed, Burnham continued to insist that Guyana was following a policy of neutralism. In this respect, non-alignment developed into a significant platform in the country’s foreign policy. This policy of non-alignment was consistently propagated by both Burnham and Ramphal who saw it as an extension of the policy of integration which formed an effective instrument in the defense of territorial integrity. No doubt, this was why Guyana became a very active member of the NAM from around 1970, especially since most countries whose positions were in opposition to the Venezuelan territorial claim also belonged to this large and expanding multilateral body.
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